Portrait of a Lady on Fire - “paint me like one of Sciamma’s girls”


Daniella Verektenidi, 6/2/20



The way I would describe my feelings after watching this would be as such; my heart a sponge - squeezed in one's hand. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady of Fire (2020) is a film that surprised me. It’s a french period drama about a love affair, and yet, it surprised me. The story is that of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young talented painter that has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), in secret. Her mother is ready to marry her off to a wealthy Milanese man and she needs a portrait, for the future husband to admire her beauty in agreement of the marriage. Héloïse has refused to be painted in the past, so Marianne is instructed to keep her company and observe her in order to create the portrait.


That is the premise of the film and as you may have already guessed a romance starts between the two women. I think that this film can be seen as if Sciamma had a vision of that portrait and then she tried to make a film out of it. There are a few bits that seem unnecessary and quite annoying as they act as signifiers in an obvious way . Those parts are very small however so not very important. The film in its entirety, yes, it is a vision - the cinematography (Claire Mathon) is as if each frame is a painting. With a minimal soundscape, any diegetic music and sound is like a rush of wind down your spine. Sciamma has orchestrated these accordingly to emphasise what the film really is; the slow burning moment before two lovers kiss. When you dare to cross the line and bare yourself naked (in any sense of meaning).


Letting yourself love and be loved, isn’t a dated period drama. The set of the time, even the circumstances in what these women live aren’t important. Mainly because despite a lot of privileges we, as women and as queer women now have, there’s still a long way to go for us and for others that aren’t as lucky as we. This film however doesn’t try to shout all the injustices women face. It’s a film about love and a film about female friendship, if that makes it feminist then it is. What Sciamma does so well is writing women. Each one of the women - the two lovers, the mother, the maid - they are a full presence within the story. In the way they speak, the roads that have led them to be the women they are and the choices they make. There’s a moment in the film when Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) are discussing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s an important moment for the two leads but also for Sophie. She has a voice and she uses it, not merely a maid but a woman. The director has of course shown her talent previously with Girlhood (2014), a coming of age drama about a girl joining a girl gang in the Parisian suburbs. The film beautifully portrayed the innocence and anxieties of walking the path to womanhood, as a black girl in a real french way . I would strongly urge you to watch.


Portrait of Lady on Fire is one of those films that lends itself to be felt more than anything else. The way Héloïse is having a bodily and emotional experience to music, is what I felt watching this. The senses heightened through the visceral experience that is painted; the visual space, the sound, the haptics. The space; a big house near the sea, in which the characters feel at odds, yet the sea feels as a way in and a way out. The sound; only diegetic, enhances the importance of music for Héloïse but also keeps the viewers sensitive to it. The haptics; a great sense of touch is created through both visuals and sound. With the familiarity of the “touch”, the viewer is almost aware of what the touch is when ultimately the two lovers do. In the most recent poster by Curzon’s Artificial Eye, depicts the moment when that is most felt.


My friend said to me “I need more queer french women in my life” and I can’t help to agree.




Portrait of a Lady on Fire, opens on the 28th of February.





Image: Artificial Eye



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